by Mikaela Lewis
“There was a rabbit trying to leave Chile, crossing the border into Peru,” former CUSLAR Coordinator Joel Gajardo told students at Elmira College September 28. “He met another rabbit who asked why he was leaving his country. ‘In Chile, they persecute elephants!’ said the first rabbit. The second rabbit replied, ‘But you are not an elephant,’ to which the first responded, ‘But how do I prove that to the military regime?’”
With a combination of wry wit and seriousness, Gajardo imparted important themes that left the students inspired.
Gajardo began his lecture by introducing Chile, his home country. He spoke of Chile’s “crazy” geography: “In the morning, you can ski in the Andes mountains, stop at home for lunch in Santiago, and then spend the afternoon at the beach.” He explained that Chile has every possible type of geography: mountains, for some of the best skiing in the world, valleys, perfect for growing vegetables and fruit, particularly grapes for Chile’s fantastic wine, desert, the driest in the world which also holds the world’s most popular observatories because of its expansive and clear sky, and glaciers, all the way down to Antarctica. Gajardo explained that these geographical characteristics are the cause of Chile’s isolation from the rest of South America, which contributed to the historical stability of the country.
The main topic of Gajardo’s lecture was Chile’s political history, connected to his personal experiences. Before the U.S.-government-supported coup against the Salvador Allende administration on September 11, 1973, Chile had been one of the most stable countries in Latin America, politically and economically. “We had a very stable democratic process. Nobody was penalized for belonging to any particular political party, that was very free. So we were not really prepared for the drastic change that happened with the military regime in 1973.”
In 1970 Dr. Salvador Allende was democratically elected president of Chile. “He was the coordinator of the coalition of more progressive forces in Chile,” Gajardo noted. Allende was elected with only 37 percent of the vote, so there was ample opposition to his presidency, which caused instability. “Allende was concerned with the poor and oppressed,” said Gajardo, “although he himself belonged to a fairly well-to-do family.” For this reason, Allende instituted many progressive reforms. “Allende immediately came into the eye of not only the rich people in Chile who were afraid that some of their wealth would be nationalized, but also into the crosshairs of the U.S. government and the wealthy class in the U.S.” The U.S. government feared the spread of socialism and the loss of economic investments in Chile. This mindset is illustrated by a quotation from then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, which Gajardo shared: “We can not allow Chile to go Communist out of the stupidity of its own people.”
“The opposition to Allende was very strong, because it included the rich people, and they have the means to really create a lot of anguish.” Major companies began to slow production of goods in order to create a scarcity that could be blamed on Allende. “For instance,” Gajardo said, “we had a shoe factory that was producing 1,000 pairs of shoes a month. When Allende was elected, immediately the owner of that factory said, ‘slow down production.’ So instead of 1,000 pairs, they start producing 800, 500, and finally only about 200 pairs of shoes each month. This created a scarcity and the people began complaining: ‘What happened? We don’t have shoes in Chile.’” This problem existed with other basic products as well because “the different industrial powers were in cahoots to diminish production to create a scarcity, and this upset people because they could not find necessary goods in the market.”
Gajardo lamented: “Some people began hoarding food, because they could not find flour to make bread, and Chileans eat a lot of bread: bread for breakfast, bread for lunch, bread for dinner, all the time, bread.” The wealthy shut down flour mills to create scarcity. The bus drivers went on strike, so goods were not being distributed, also creating scarcity. All of this was done by those who controlled these industries, to reflect poorly on Allende and cause a loss of faith in his plans and leadership.
“I used to have a Volkswagon 12-passenger bus,” Gajardo shared. “I took all of the seats out to start using it to move flour from the mills to the bakeries. Several of us who were in favor of the government and trying to help create better conditions did the same.”
“In another case there was a strike of buses, so I put the seats back in my bus and I drove some routes, taking people where they needed to go. They tried to pay me and I said, ‘No, no this is a free ride.’”
Gajardo agreed with Allende’s goals of helping the poor and oppressed, therefore he did what was necessary to counteract the actions of those who would undermine the president. “People were very enthused with what Allende was doing, because we were trying to improve the situation of the lower class,” he said. “Some of the missions of Allende were to provide two pints of milk a day to each child, to provide breakfast at school. The president was always concerned with helping kids grow up healthy. But it was very difficult to fight the rich people who could create a lot of disturbances.”
“Undoubtedly Chile was going through a period of uncertainty, fostered by foreign intervention — the U.S. — and also by the rich people in Chile.” The opposition tried to say that Allende was not a “legitimate president because he did not earn at least fifty percent of the vote, but no President in Chile for many, many elections had reached fifty percent. We have a tradition of plurality in Chile. It’s part of what we do,” explained Gajardo.
This argument ultimately failed: On September 11, 1973 the Chilean military attacked the presidential palace and overthrew Allende. “They destroyed the presidential palace. They killed many workers who they thought would oppose the military coup, and the president was assassinated,” said Gajardo. The resulting government was a military dictatorship under General Augusto Pincohet, which lasted 17 gruesome years of censorship, repression and violence. “The repression was brutal,” he continued. “The Chilean people were really unprepared. We thought it was going to be bad, but we never dreamed it would be that bad.”
The military took over all of the universities, including the Catholic University where Gajardo taught. “I was not a member of any political party, but I was supportive of Allende. I did not think I had anything to be concerned about.” So Gajardo continued teaching. “When I returned to teach classes in March, the Dean of my school said, ‘Joel, we have a problem. The military intervened in the university and the president is now an admiral of the Navy. They said you cannot teach anymore, and you cannot have contact with the students.’” One of Gajardo’s ethics courses was called Christian and Marxist Understandings of Human Nature, and “when they saw the word Marxist, they assumed that I was Marxist,” he said.
“On April 19, 1974, I went home at about 9:30 at night. As I was going into my house, immediately three guys jumped on me. I thought they were robbing me, that they were thieves in my house, but it was more than that. It was the Chilean Secret Service. They immediately handcuffed me, blindfolded me, and eventually they took me to a torture cell for 72 hours.” He was then taken to a concentration camp at the national stadium in Santiago, where he was held for two weeks. “I was taken to the Minister of War, and he offered me two alternatives: stay in prison for who knows how long, or leave the country right away.” So Gajardo left. He relocated with his family to Ithaca, New York later in 1974.
Once in Ithaca, Gajardo did not stop trying to improve the situation in his home country. He became CUSLAR’s Coordinator, where he continued his activism through education about Latin America, expressions of solidarity with persons under duress and helping other Chileans to relocate in New York State.
Gajardo explained that Pinochet was never tried in Chile for his human rights violations. “One problem for the Chilean society is that our judicial system, despite everything that we knew about the atrocities that Pinochet committed, was unable to penalize him.” Therefore the collective memory of the dictatorship is somewhat inaccurate or forgotten, and the present day opinion of Pinochet is still divided. Some of the wealthy people who benefited economically from the Pinochet regime still regard him as a hero, and there are still families who have not seen justice for the treatment of their family members who were tortured, killed or exiled. The Pinochet regime broke up families by dividing them physically and politically, the effects of which still exist today.
Gajardo finished by encouraging the group to question the history they are taught, to continue to be curious and seek truth. “Don’t lose your ability to be critical. Criticizing what is wrong with your country is not unpatriotic,” he said. He saw the extreme censorship of a dictatorship and the manipulation of a government of its people, and for this reason he insists on questioning everything, thinking critically and independently. Gajardo shared the history of Chile and his experiences, including the ugly parts, because he believes that is the only way this world can make progress: being honest, knowing and accepting our real history, and learning from mistakes.
Dr. Joel Gajardo is an ordained Presbyterian minister with degrees from Union Theological Seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Princeton University. After leaving Chile due to the military coup, Gajardo became the coordinator of CUSLAR at Cornell University from 1974 to 1978. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Mikaela Lewis is a December 2015 graduate of Elmira College. She studied Spanish and Educational Studies.